Two Cuban documentaries show effects of US sanctions on island nation

The Guardian | Monday, 15 January 2024 | Click here for original article

Liz Oliva Fernández

Liz Oliva Fernández

A Cuban journalist is looking to spread awareness of the US trade embargo in two illuminating documentaries arriving in early 2024.

Liz Oliva Fernández says whenever she covered news or events on the island, be it the push for democratic reforms, or the private businesses springing up after the Castros loosened their grip on power, they always intersected with the sanctions.

Those sanctions, first imposed six decades ago, are the subject of Uphill on the Hill, and Hardliner on the Hudson.

Oliva Fernández, who traveled to the US to promote the films she co-created, says the sanctions “have a huge impact”.

“We’re not talking about a small country in the Caribbean sanctioning another one,” she said. “We’re talking [about] an empire like the United States that not only stops Cuba having normal relations with the United States, but also stops it having normal relations with the rest of the world.”

She elaborated on the “really desperate situation” of the Cuban economy.

“If you can’t do business with any country, if you have to pay three or four times the regular cost of everything because you’re buying from faraway countries, if you can’t use dollars, if you can’t create bank accounts, if you can’t pay with credit cards, there is nothing you can do,” she explained.

The sanctions were first imposed by President John F Kennedy in February 1962, three years after Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries came to power in an armed uprising that ousted the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Almost a year earlier, the CIA had tried to kill the nascent revolution in the military debacle known as the Bay of Pigs. It had been one of dozens of attempts to kill Castro.

In October 1962, the world held its breath for 13 days during a standoff between the US and the Soviet Union over Nikita Khrushchev’s plans to install nuclear missiles on the island, which would have been in easy range of the US. The crisis was resolved peacefully, but it set in place a strategic antagonism from Washington towards Havana that has never been resolved.

The sanctions have had a devastating impact. Cuba’s current GDP per capita is less than $10,000, twice that of Jamaica but a lot less than in the US, where it is $70,000. Because the sanctions are so wide-reaching, countries across the world who choose to trade with Cuba can find themselves punished. The UN general assembly has voted many times for the sanctions to be lifted. Outside a brief period when they were loosened as part of a diplomatic breakthrough with Barack Obama, they remain more pervasive than ever.

To widespread outcry on the island, Donald Trump added Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism during his administration. President Joe Biden has barely changed that policy.

“When you talk about the US’s Cuba policy, you’re really talking about the Trump-Biden Cuba policy because they’re the same,” says Oliva Fernández.

Despite its challenges, she says, Cuba has long managed to achieve healthcare results better or on a par with the US, become a major producer of drugs and vaccines, and is known for sending doctors and nurses to countries including Venezuela and Haiti, which suffer from a lack of health infrastructure and some of which themselves are often at odds with the US.

“Nobody dares to have a social revolution or a different system in [front of] the US’s nose,” she said.

Oliva Fernández, who works for the US-based independent media outlet Belly of the Beast, is attempting to get an answer as to why these sanctions are still in place. She’s eager to find the evidence the US is relying on when it heaps Cuba in with North Korea, Syria and Iran as a sponsor of terror.

In Uphill on the Hill, Oliva Fernández travels to Washington DC, talks to former US officials and learns about the ongoing political power of the Cuban American lobby – particularly in states like Florida and New Jersey.

One memorable scene shows Oliva Fernández attending a state department press briefing and asking the principal deputy spokesperson, Vedant Patel, about what Cuba has done to deserve the label of sponsor of terrorism.

“The regime has a long track record of egregious human rights abuses, suppression of a free press, suppression of civil society and other key factors that continue to keep them on that list,” claims Patel, failing to offer a specific example and refusing Oliva Fernández a follow-up.

In a statement to the Guardian, a spokesperson also failed to detail specific acts but claimed Cuba was “repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbour to terrorists”.

“We do not publicly discuss or comment on internal deliberations regarding designations,” the statement added.

In the forthcoming Hardliner on the Hudson, which will also be released on YouTube, Oliva Fernández details the role that Senator Bob Menendez, the chair of the powerful Senate foreign relations committee, has had in shaping US policy towards Cuba.

Menendez, who is 70 and whose parents moved to the US from Cuba in the early 1950s, was recently forced to step down as chair after being charged with taking bribes from the government of Egypt. He has denied the accusations. He had previously been charged with corruption, though that case ended with a mistrial.

In one clip from the movie, Menendez refuses to respond to Oliva Fernández’s questions when she confronts him at an event announcing a bill to support firefighters. On a second occasion, his press assistant appears to get angry.

Oliva Fernández, who talks about the challenges of growing up as a Black woman in Cuba, says she has no links to the Cuban authorities and does not speak for them.

“Cuba, like any other country in the world, has its own internal problems, but this is something we can solve inside of the country. But the sanctions are something we don’t have any agency on,” she said.

She says the US has a record of hypocrisy by doing business with nations such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but never talks “about [those countries’] human rights violations”.

“Of course Cuba is not perfect. We’re far away from being a perfect county,” she said, before a screening of her documentary in Seattle. “But we’re trying to build a country in a war because US sanctions are an economic war.”

As to whether the sanctions are used by Cuban authorities to try to blame the US for the nation’s problems rather than tackling them themselves, she adds: “Maybe the best way to figure that out is to lift the sanctions.”

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